Stuck on a Ledge in Rapids, and Other Places I’d Rather Not Be

For all the rhapsodizing I do about the great outdoors, occasionally I wish I had taken up needlepoint, calligraphy or some other sedentary pursuit that would keep me out of harm’s way.

Such reflections typically manifest during inopportune moments, such as the time a grizzly bear tore after and damn near caught me outside Alaska’s Denali National Park, or when a shark circled the 8-foot rowboat a buddy I were rowing across Long Island Sound in the middle of the night, or when a blizzard pinned three of us climbers inside a two-man tent for days at 19,000 feet on Mt. Aconcagua in the Andes, or approaching Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon.

Anyway, on a much less dramatic scale, I had one of those moments the other day while kayaking down a set of ledge rapids on Enfield’s Scantic River known as The Staircase.

Somehow I had gotten hung up on a “smoothie,” or submerged flat rock, just above a narrow chute through which I would have to squeeze before plunging over a 2-foot drop.

Aware of my predicament, a group of paddlers spun around in an eddy 50 yards downstream to prepare to fish me out of the icy water if I happened to flip.

Among them was my buddy Phil Warner, one of New England’s top paddlers and rescue instructors, who once helped me back in my boat when I turtled on the ocean side of Fishers Island. Thus, I felt reasonably confident I wouldn’t be visiting Davy Jones’s Locker – especially since I was wearing a life jacket and helmet – but Phil had mentioned that just a week before he had to come to the aid of one paddler on the Scantic who had overturned, smashed into the rocks and broke his nose.

Having fractured my nozzle on two separate non-nautical occasions I had no desire to go for a trifecta. Plus, it’s kind of embarrassing to go over in front of a crowd.

So I scooched forward, bouncing the kayak up and down and rocking from side to side. Freeing yourself from a rock in rapids requires a leap of faith, which came at the instant the plastic hull broke free and I shot forward.

I could see Phil wildly swinging his arm, directing me to aim toward the center of the river, away from boulders that jutted directly ahead. I jabbed my right paddle into the boiling current in a low brace, the kayak dutifully pivoted, and I skittered past the rocks, plowed through a short standing wave and squirted out like a watermelon seed.

“Nicely done,” one of the paddlers remarked when I caught up to the pack.

“I really didn’t feel like swimming today,” I replied.

The Staircase is the final challenge in the 5-mile Scantic Spring Splash Canoe and Kayak Race, scheduled for Saturday, March 30.

The first hurdle at about the 2-mile mark is a tortuous portage around a 12-foot dam, forcing you to lug your boat up and down a steep detour known as Heart Attack Hill, and then relaunching just above the hairiest drop, Stocker’s Rapids.

Tim Nutt of Vernon, a top competitor who helped organize last week’s practice run for Saturday’s race, gave a detailed tutorial on successfully navigating Stocker’s, culminating in a seemingly effortless plunge through a roiling gap followed by lightning-quick strokes to avoid two menacing boulders.

After watching Tim and Phil smoothly pass through Stocker’s I uncharacteristically decided discretion would be the better part of valor and joined a handful of paddlers on a portage around the rapids, still thinking about my nose.

Most of the other paddlers who dared to tackle Stocker’s the other day stayed upright, but a few Maytagged in the churn and wound up shivering on shore while they emptied their boats. At least nobody wound up in the emergency room.

After Stocker’s paddlers must contend with Chimney Rapids and finally, the dreaded Staircase, only a hundred yards or so from the finish, where crowds typically stand on a bridge like NASCAR spectators, hoping to witness some carnage.

You can watch YouTube videos of past races in which wild cheers erupt whenever someone flips.

I hope I don’t give onlookers something to celebrate this Saturday.

The Scantic River Watershed Association, sponsors of the 22nd edition of the Scantic Spring Splash Canoe and Kayak Race, will hold registration from 9 to 11 a.m. at the Powder Mill Barn on South Maple Street. The registration fee is $20 per participant but is reduced to $18 for those who donate a non-perishable food item to the Enfield Food Shelf.

The race starts at Quality Avenue in Somers. Volunteers restrict parking so plan on a quick boat drop and then drive your car to the end and take a free bus shuttle back to the start.

Five novice classes start first at 11:30 a.m. The 13 racing classes follow at noon. There is a class for everybody regardless of skill level – even those of us who decide to portage Stocker’s and get hung up on The Staircase.



Reader Comments


Utah Rocks: Adventures Among The Arches And The Rapids (Part I)

You know how it feels when you witness something so astonishingly exquisite and surreal it literally takes your breath away, and all you can do is gasp in amazement?

Oops. I Meant To Say, Whatever You Do, NEVER Try To Pose For A Selfie With Bear Cubs While Mama Grizzly Is Watching, And Other Corrections

• Alert readers have correctly pointed out a slight flaw in my instructions for the proper rock climbing command when you have unclipped from your rope. You should loudly announce, "Rappel off," not "On rappel."...

Use It Or Lose It: Trails Disappear If Nobody Hikes Them

Nature really hates a vacuum when it comes to paths.

Plunging Through Plum Gut And Bongo Sliding Through The Race In A Kayak: Maybe There Is Such A Thing As Too Much Fun

So a rabbi and a psychiatrist are kayaking in the ocean when a giant wave crashes over them and knocks the rabbi unconscious. The psychiatrist manages to pull the rabbi ashore, where he regains consciousness.

Once Again, Pink Gloves (Plus a Clever Signal) Help Save The Day At The Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon

"On your left!" Phil Warner shouted from the bow of a tandem kayak, racing toward a buoy during the paddle leg of last Sunday’s Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon in Lenox, Mass.

It's Swallow Time Again On The Connecticut River

Early Thursday evening was a magical time to paddle on the lower Connecticut River near Lyme.

Rocks In Their Heads Again: Another Bunch Of Idiots Knock Over An Ancient Stone Formation, This Time In Oregon

"Every now and again people do something so monumentally destructive, dimwitted and dishonorable it belongs in a class of disgracefulness normally reserved for trophy hunters ... It’s almost as if they wake up one morning and say to...

Who Needs Bug Zappers When Dragonflies Are On The Prowl?

Citronella candles, bug zappers, insecticides – people go to elaborate and often poisonous lengths to combat mosquitoes, deer flies and other nettlesome insects as we move into the steamy weeks of late summer, but I’ve been letting...

Life's A Beach: Eavesdropping In The Sand

"Sweetie, do you know what that is?" No response. "Look at that bird! You know what they call it?" Still no response. "It’s a seagull!"

Surf’s Up! Hanging Ten In A Kayak

All right, technically my buddy Spyros "Spy" Barres and I weren’t hanging 10 toes off the end off boards while riding waves at Westerly’s Fenway Beach on Thursday, but we were surfing.

I'm Always Chasing Rainbows

All of us who have ventured atop mountains, out to sea, or simply into a nearby park have occasionally faced Mother Nature’s wrath – a sudden thunderstorm, pounding blizzard, gale-force winds, locusts …

Loading Your Backpack: Less Is (Usually) More

Some years ago, preparing to hike the Hundred Mile Wilderness – the final stretch of the fabled Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, I stuffed my backpack with what I initially considered to be the absolute bare minimum for a week in...

Sun, Sun, Sun Here It Comes (Enough Already!)

When I was a kid, the Fourth of July was one of the year’s high holy days, right up there with Halloween and the last day of school, because that was when my parents took my sister and me to the beach for the annual fireworks...